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Overheard in GenForum: Filing Birth Certificates
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

January 04, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Someone once told me, I thought, that back in the late 1800s that births were not always filed. If this is true, I may not be able to find a birth certificate on a grandparent at all. Could someone tell me if I have my information wrong? -- Lora

A: Vital records, the recording of births and deaths by a civil authority such as a courthouse or state vital records division is a relatively new practice. In fact, most countries, including England, did not begin to record this information on a government level until the 19th or 20th centuries.

The registration of births, deaths and in some cases marriages with governmental agencies was the result of a need to know statistics. It was not until this need to know that counties or states or countries began to record the information pertaining to the births, marriages, and deaths of their citizens.

Vital records are a contemporary record.

Statistics with Vital Records

It was not until the late 1800s and early 1900s that counties and states, in the United States, began to wonder about such things as epidemics and the growth of communities through birth. The governing bodies wanted to know how the annual number of births and deaths were affecting the community. Whether it was a town, county or state.

The tracking of this statistical information has also affected other records, including census records. The mortality schedules, for example, were created to track possible epidemics. If an individual in question died within that twelve month period, in addition to checking any available death records, the mortality schedule is another valid option.

The mortality schedules from 1850 to 1880 may be the only governmental listing of deaths found for a given state or county. A similar listing in the census for a child born within the census year is sometimes your only alternative in finding a birth record on a given individual.

Why Marriages?

While it is true that birth and death records in the form of legal birth and death certificates issued by a governing body are new, marriage records often date much further back. Of all the records we search for, this may seem a strange one to date back further.

We come from a time period when it is required that we prove our age with that birth certificate. However, in earlier times it was simply a matter of another person, usually a parent, signing an affidavit or swearing to a judge or other official, that the child in question was a given age.

Marriage records date back further than any of the other vital records and many researchers wonder why that is. It wasn't just that the various county officials were being kind to genealogists.

The marriage record was the only proof the spouse had that they were entitled to the estate when the husband or wife passed away. For women this allowed them to either take what was offered in the will, or request their dower right. A dower right is one-third of the estate. This one-third is set aside before those who have bills or other claims to the estate can begin to take their portion.

When and Where?

Vital records, if they exist, are probably on the county level. The states did not require the registration of births and deaths until the 1900s in most states. Fortunately for us, many counties started recording this information in the latter half of the 1800s, so you often have a little more hope if you know the county.

A look at the County Courthouse Book by Elizabeth Petty Bentley is one way to determine what each county has.

The one exception to these vital records is the New England states. Vital records in New England are found on the town level. In many of the New England states, especially Massachusetts, vital records have been recorded in the town records since the earliest of times. Some towns have vital records that date back to the early 1700s or even into the 1600s.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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